Ever stare at a candle-flame, focus on the wavering and flickering quality of its nature? There comes a point when the flame is all you see, everything around you fades away into darkness and there’s a feeling of centeredness in which the attachment or association your thoughts have with the so-called external reality is reduced to a fraction of its normal energy-draining experience. There has been thrown around for decades ideas, often associated with the self-help movement and various forms of spirituality, in which positive thinking or positive appraisal gets thrust front and center in what is at times declared a war against negativity and the feeling of smallness or disempowerment. Often connected with the fight against cancer in which negativity lets the cancer win and even more simplistically with attracting monetary wealth, positive thinking has a long history of running up against the difficulties of life and positing that a smile and a chuckle will do what a dedication to work often won’t.
I am not removing the power of looking at life through the lens of a more positive framing, our experiences are shaped and the particulars of them focused on through the emotional lens applied. How many of us, having decided to force a smile and view things from a different perspective, find our anger and negativity waning and opportunities that were unseen suddenly becoming noticed? There is not so much a creation going on here as the opportunities were always there in potential, but until our minds changed to hold a space for them, they might as well have been non-existent. This sense of positive thinking is essentially the positive side of it, but like all good ideas the attempt to frame the whole of existence through only one lens gets us into trouble. What ends up happening in this myopic view is not so much a renewal of positive thinking but the erasure of all other kind of thought, all for the purpose of ensuring the continued forward-moving power of positivity. The exclusion of all else ignores the multiplicity of which life can and should be viewed. Anymore than a continued focus on depression and negativity and worthlessness closes a person off to the very real facets of life that are important, beautiful and ecstatic so a simplistic willful focus only on positivity can blind one to very real difficulties that are nipping at our heels and sometimes beating on our back. This is, what Ken Wilber notes, a refusal to see life as a system of interlocking nests within nests or contexts within contexts all the way down, in which one method of inquiry within one context is broadened to all, losing nuance and the acknowledgment of a differentiated reality.
So why the candle example? A flame is beautiful, giving light, giving warmth, associated with the crackling flames of a roaring fire and the tenderness of a romantic dinner. If focused on too long however, everything else disappears and becomes ignored eventually leading even this singular vision to delve an absence. A flame does not exist without fuel, without a context through and by which it exists and has being. To focus solely on the flame is to ignore the multi-faceted reality which gives it form and forget the thought and intent which brought it into existence. The flame that began as warmth and object of focus becomes a consuming and destructive fire. I remember learning to drive and getting my first car, a rather horrible vehicle that signified so much of the journey through adolescence. If I were to focus only on the vehicle itself I’d lose the context of its associated goodness, the laughter among friends, transporting nine people at a time all piled in, and the freedom of travel. If I focused solely on the associated good times I’d lose track of the terrible gas mileage and the way the brakes seized up and almost ran me off the road. There is no singular view that encapsulates the totality of the experience owning that vehicle and I do my life a disservice by focusing on one to the exclusion of the others. Good and bad here are less important, if even possible to be objectively determined, than the meaning and lessons learned from noting the whole of that time.
I want to posit a slightly different framing here, that sometimes the “dark” is actually truth under a false light. The desire within positive thinking is, I believe, reactionary, an offering to counter the supposed negative or mechanistic soul-denying view of a purely scientific/technological reality. While there is legitimacy in this framing of the scientific view of reality, it is itself a reactionary position against the ideological context that science grew out of. In a time where truth was dictated by religious fiat and those who questioned the divine nature of these declarations were killed, it is little wonder that science began and was fueled by an abject denial of the spiritual and sought to boil everything down to a flatland of mechanisms, or as Wilber says, “its.” This is not the world of science today however, as specialists recognize the interconnection of various disciplines and there is a willingness not blindly to accept the mystical but to account it a space of meaning. Science has always been constrained and found freedom within the principle of contextual-criticism, where one’s ideas are noted for their particular placement in the sea of understanding and critically analyzed for their ability to account for the information available to a greater or lesser degree than so far offered by others. Indeed, it is here in this “darkness” of critical uncertainty that truth is so often sought and found. Light being light is already illuminated and serves not to broaden our vision but to showcase where we have yet to look.
As a flame flickers we can notice the illumination even as we note the presence of a dark inner aspect of its existence. The exclusion of all else, such as is found in an over-reliance on intuition or the emotionally monumental quality of phenomenological experience, make the flames become only absence and therefore leads to the loss of the whole. Our perspective does indeed help shape our world but it is not the only act in town as even that perspective is given shape and nuance via variables of which we have no control over. We can and should burn with the fervor of constantly seeking truth, the universe is a life-giving spectrum of possibility becoming actuality, though a responsible traveler will do so with an eye towards the dark of an uncertainty asking for light.
Physical copies of “Journeys of a Spiritual Atheist” are now available through CreateSpace.